October 31, 2011

Personal essay: Is Hipstamatic changing the very way we think about the arts?

Is Hipstamatic changing the very way we think about the arts?

So as usual with expensive tech issues, I'm a little late to the party with all this; but just last month, I finally acquired my first iPod Touch with a camera, when the 3 Enhanceds finally dropped to clearance-style prices in preparation for the release of the brand-new 4 Enhanceds. And so that's had me snatching up a plethora of camera apps at the Apple Store for the first time too, including the very first thing I bought, the retro-camera emulator Hipstamatic. Ah, Hipstamatic, how I love you so! And so do tens of millions of others, in fact, enough to make it a legitimate cultural phenomenon; for what it does, in some mysterious way almost like magic, is digitally recreate the very specific look and feel of a whole variety of combinations of older cameras, films and lenses, like for example infrared using a Helga Viking with a red filter, or age-expired '70s Polaroid film with a Lucas AB2. The secret of this company continuing to make money, then, is that they're constantly offering up new lens and film types for in-app purchasing; I have something like eight types of film now, for example, for which I only paid a dollar apiece, more than worth it for me but really adding up for the company once you start building a million customers or more for each update. And that of course is the most brilliant thing about Apple's App Store, setting aside for a moment its legitimate problems; it made the cutting-edge '90s theory of "micro-payments" actually viable for the first time, without endless hassles on the seller's part or endless credit-card transaction fees that whittle the profit down to nearly nothing. Which is why you have millions of these apps now, and is why some of them seem sometimes to work so amazingly as to be magic, because a smart unemployed twentysomething literally has millions to gain from building one that good.

Is Hipstamatic changing the very way we think about the arts?

Is Hipstamatic changing the very way we think about the arts?

Is Hipstamatic changing the very way we think about the arts?

Is Hipstamatic changing the very way we think about the arts?

In fact, if you were to compare some of my recent Hipstamatic shots with the types of photos I was taking as an undergraduate photography major back in the late 1980s (like I do here above), you would sometimes barely be able to tell the difference; indeed, the only difference seems to be behind the scenes, in that the former sometimes were the result of hours of work in the darkroom, and certainly years worth of training and education on the ways that certain films, papers, cameras and lenses all interact in a variety of specific situations, long before I actually got to those situations and started shooting, results that can now be fairly realistically replicated by a five-year-old randomly pointing their mommy's iPhone at something and pressing a big yellow button. And so that naturally leads to a question right after this realization, of what good a "professional" fine-art photographer even is anymore, anyway, or what good a professional-quality education in photography is either. And this taps directly into something I've talked about here several times before, of how I think here in the middle of the Information Age, we might be seeing the same kind of profound change in how society interacts with the arts as the Victorian Age of the 19th century saw during the middle of the Industrial Age. See, before then, anything you might even possibly label as "creativity" was almost exclusively within the realm of the rich, and was done mostly as a part of the expectations they were supposed to hold up as "gentlemen," while the poor back then were by and large either hardscrabble sustenance farmers (what the vast majority of Westerners did for a "living" before the the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s) or factory workers, and thus toiled at hard manual labor for sixteen hours a day just to merely survive, not having even the time and energy at the end of the day for creative pursuits, save perhaps for a little reading of the Bible before bed or a fiddle song or two.

Is Hipstamatic changing the very way we think about the arts?

As this generation's children and grandchildren transitioned throughout the 19th century from farming to managerial positions and other white-collar jobs, as both wages and safety slowly went up for all, as a national public-education program and the 40-hour workweek became implemented, this created a brand-new concept called "leisure time" that people had mostly never known before, and that society encouraged filling with activities designed to "better" yourself, or at least amuse yourself -- reading books, going to plays, participating in sports, learning a musical instrument, taking up a "hobby" (yet another brand-new concept, a creative endeavor done for no other reason than because it's fun and wiles away idle hours). And this was fine for a century or more, as society in general learned to catch up with the lofty goals of these Dickensian reformers; but now that nearly 100 percent of citizens in Western civilization reach adulthood now not just literate but media-literate and tech-literate, it's again changing the very nature of what we consider "free time" and what we do with this time -- to not just consume creative acts that are done by others, but to literally make the creative act itself part of our leisure activities, to not just read books but write our own, not just watch movies but cut together our own customized trailers, not just laugh at cartoons but occasionally make up some of them ourselves. Certainly I think there's a whole lot of things you can point to in our post-9/11 society that very concretely prove this kind of theory -- from the rise of self-publishing authors and self-producing musicians to the popularity of places like Threadless and YouTube, the invention of the entire phenomenon known as "LOLcats" and its dark twin "4chan" -- and I think the insane popularity of such specialized camera apps as Hipstamatic, Pano, Tilt-Shift, Slow Shutter and others is merely more of this growing body of evidence.

Is Hipstamatic changing the very way we think about the arts?
From the excellent webcomic "Toothpaste for Dinner." Click here for the original page.

Of course, there's a pretty substantial backlash that's started building up against "automatically artsy" apps like Hipstamatic too, especially among artists whose work these apps are trying to simplify; and that's no surprise at all, because this societal shift affects them just as profoundly as anyone else. After all, this deeply disrupts the entire paradigm that has made the professional arts work for at least two centuries now -- the idea that the general public needs the arts to be part of their lives, but that most can't afford the time and discipline it takes to be a good artist themselves, so gladly pay an elite class of full-time creatives to be so for them. But if everyone can produce a gallery-worthy photo just by pointing their iPhone at something random and pressing a big yellow button, then what's the point in buying something from an actual gallery anymore? That's the question that's led more and more in the last thirty years to the arts in general becoming a bigger and bigger academic con game of MFAs and incomprehensible mission statements; because without these fancy-schmancy Postmodernist elements, the answer quickly starts becoming, "Why, there's no need at all anymore for these galleries and gallery artists, just for me to have gallery-worthy work in my life now." And that's incredibly threatening to the people who rely on this structure to make a living, not just on this extreme academic end but the extreme commercial end of Hollywood studios too, which is why you're simultaneously seeing these days a wave of moral panic over these issues from the ivory tower and a veritable tidal wave of intellectual-property lawsuits from giant media conglomerates, both in their ways going overboard in their attempt to argue that art should always be a unique and rarefied thing by a unique and rarefied person that is uniquely owned on a scarcity basis by a unique and rarefied entity, with each and every step of this process able to be monetized in one form or another.

What things like Hipstamatic seem to be proving is that this paradigm might simply just no longer be true; that when everyone produces professional-level creative acts merely as fun-time activities when bored, maybe creativity itself really isn't worth money anymore, and that those who have formerly made money just producing creative works may now have to find another way to do so. I mean, certainly you can look at a group exactly like my very own as a good example of this, of how CCLaP doesn't make its money merely from the act of presenting creative content (instead, there is always a free option for every creative project we put out, the option that the majority of our audience members choose as well), but mostly relies on the legitimately unique things we do that most others simply can't as untrained individuals -- like the high-quality handmade paper editions of all our books, or the bigger live events we sometimes produce, or starting next year the classes on bookbinding and the like that we're going to start teaching through the center. There is still money to be made from doing creative things, but artists in the 21st century would be wise to start changing their very view on what this might now consist of; because as I'm happy although a bit ashamed to admit, things like the one-dollar Hipstamatic app are largely making my entire four years studying photography at a university a couple of decades ago now worthless, in that 90 percent of my training was for technical things that can now be automatically compensated for in a post-digital world, the other 10 percent stuff that can either be learned from books (like the design world's rule of golden thirds) or simply from experience (like how to get models to do what you want, a fine art unto itself). I'm not exactly going to complain about this, because tech stuff was always the biggest pain of photography to begin with, and getting rid of these pains lets people jump right over the technical hurdle and go straight to the fun artsy stuff right away; but it does certainly mean, without a doubt in my opinion, that the very subject of "the arts" is profoundly changing right in front of our eyes, and that artists would do well to anticipate what might be coming next, instead of working with an outdated mindset and paying the price later.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:27 PM, October 31, 2011. Filed under: Design | Photography | Reviews |